Ukraine rebels parade banned tanks on Victory Day

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) –


Thousands gathered Wednesday in Ukraine's rebel capital to watch a parade of banned tanks and artillery to celebrate the Soviet Union's World War II victory over Nazi Germany.

The display of such heavy weaponry used by Kremlin-backed rebels during their four-year conflict with government forces violates the terms of a 2015 peace deal that neither side has honoured.

The peace deal called for both sides to withdraw mortars, rockets and other large calibre arms from demarcation lines, one of which runs through the outskirts of Donetsk, the main city of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

An AFP reporter counted 45 pieces of heavy military equipment including tanks, artillery systems and multiple rocket launchers

Many were painted with the Soviet Union's red star and a black-and-orange-striped Saint George's ribbon.

"All the equipment taking part in the parade was acquired as trophies," Alexander Voronin, the rebels' deputy military chief, told AFP, claiming it was seized from the Ukrainian army and then restored.

At the opening of the event attended by around 35,000, Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said the region's people "have to defend their land with weapons" and protect "the Russian world" from Ukrainian nationalists.

"Today we are in uniform and for us this is no longer a holiday to pay tribute -- now it's our holiday," 32-year-old Akhra Avidzba, a rebel fighter, told AFP.

Local residents came to the parade with Saint George ribbons pinned on their clothes and carrying red flags and bouquets of lilac.

Some brought children dressed in stylized Second World War uniforms.

Unlike at previous parades in 2016 and 2017, no one seemed to be holding Russian flags, an AFP correspondent noticed.

- Communist propaganda -

Larisa, a 40-year-old manager, said she came to Donetsk from Kiev specially for the military parade.

Such parades are associated with the Soviet era and were massively revived under President Vladimir Putin in Russia.

They have been banned in the Ukrainian capital since the conflict with Russian-backed separatists broke out in April 2014.

"It is sad, for me this is a childhood memory," said Larisa, who grew up in Donetsk but has lived in Kiev for a decade.

She wore a Saint George's ribbon, which has also been banned by Ukraine as a symbol of Russian aggression in a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

On the other side of the frontline, in Kiev, about 10,000 people marched through central streets carrying portraits of relatives killed during the war.

Kiev police detained 14 participants for wearing banned symbols "of the communist totalitarian regime," including the Saint George's ribbon. They face a fine.

"Stalin's Soviet Union in the first two years of the World War II was an ally of Hitler's Germany," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a speech at the commemoration ceremony.

Today, Putin's Russia is ready to bring the world "to the brink of World War III," he warned.

"They are here, not far from us -- and this requires our special vigilance and responsibility," he said.